"Religion is the President's last resort"
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Emmanuel Macron are not on good terms at the moment. "There is always polemic between the two leaders either on the phone or in front of the press," wrote Burhanettin Duran recently in the pro-government Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah.
It is well known, says the columnist, who has good access to the presidential palace, that "Erdogan lectures Macron on world politics and history" – evidently not always in a congenial tone. According to Duran, the Turkish leader does not have a high opinion of his French colleague, considering him "inexperienced" and "naive".
The commentary appeared a few weeks ago. Today it would likely be even harsher. The Turkish-French war of words at the highest political level is an expression of poisoned political relations.
"Turkey has a bellicose attitude towards its NATO allies," said Emmanuel Macron recently in an interview with the Arab news channel Al Jazeera.
Notable here is that the Frenchman chose a broadcaster in the Gulf state of Qatar of all places for his tirades against Ankara, because Doha is one of Erdogan's few remaining allies in the Arab world. Macron made use of his airtime to smooth ruffled feathers after proclaiming his categorical commitment to freedom of expression in the wake of the renewed conflict over the Muhammad cartoons.
But his main aim was to launch broadsides against Erdogan's Turkey. Macron alleged that the Turkish President had played a part in stoking the conflict. And now he, Macron, wished to calm the waters. But that could only happen if the "Turkish President respects France, respects the European Union and its values, and stops spreading lies and insults".
Macron certainly knows how to dish it out, as was made clear here once again. And his counterpart in Ankara is every bit as adept at casting aspersions. On several occasions, the Turkish president has publicly urged the Frenchman to have his head examined.
This insulting bit of advice was prompted by Macron's much-quoted speech in which he announced that he would take action against "Islamic separatism" in France.
In response, Erdogan called on the Turkish population to boycott French products. Europe, too, had a duty here: "European politicians should call on Macron, who leads anti-Muslim hatred on the continent, to stop his policies.”
Erdogan's communications director, Fahrettin Altun, who has the task of making the head of state's thoughts known to an international audience, followed suit: "Macron's anti-Islam rhetoric is yet another example of a desperate European politician vying for relevance."
Islamophobia, xenophobia and the attacks on Erdogan are tools Macron is using to take over the leadership in Europe, according to the presidential spokesman. As if that were not enough: "Macron is following the old fascist playbook that targeted Jews in Europe in this matter."
The reference to the fate of the European Jews in the first half of the last century is a recurring motif in reports and comments in the government-linked Turkish media.
"Jews were the target of far-right racism in Europe 100 years ago, and now, Muslims are facing racism in Europe," wrote Hilal Kaplan in the Daily Sabah under the heading "Liberty, equality, fraternity, except Muslims".
But Turkish-French discord goes far beyond the obvious differences of opinion about the situation of Muslims in France.
Paris and Ankara are also at loggerheads on key foreign policy issues: "The current war of words is part of a broader confrontation between Erdogan and Macron," writes Burhanettin Duran. "After Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, the Islam issue is now fuelling further tensions between the two politicians."
Macron is looking for "pretexts" to make the European Union agree to economic sanctions against Turkey, the journalist contends. But he cannot make his argument without reference to the personal dimension and therefore alleges that the French president is desperately seeking to "avenge his losses to Turkey’s leader in North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria and the Caucasus".
The commentator suggests that Ankara has gained the upper hand over France in these hotbeds of crisis and conflict – something that is by no means clear.
The passage is a good example of the triumphalism that pervades the pro-regime Turkish media, which ignores the facts, but nevertheless – as is generally the case with systematic disinformation – manages to sway the opinions of many people in Turkey.
Differentiated spectrum of opinions
In his commentaries on Turkish foreign relations, Burhanettin Duran consistently represents the loyalist camp. Yet despite all political efforts to achieve media conformity, a number of independent, alternative voices are beginning to be heard in Turkey.
Even on the France question, which has recently been a subject of much debate in the social media and elsewhere, a differentiated spectrum of opinions can be discerned.
In a remarkable comment on the online portal DuvarE, Sezin Oney argues that Erdogan is escalating the conflict with Paris with strategic intentions: "Erdogan is clearly picking a fight with Macron because he intends to add fuel to the fire."
In comparison, the conflict with Greece is a game that Erdogan can escalate and de-escalate at will, as a bargaining chip with the EU. "The tension with France is genuine because it is ideological," argues Oney.
The author points out that the Turkish president showed his true face only recently when he described his country in a speech as "the rising star in the new world order".
The aggressive quality of Turkish foreign policy in the region is hard to overlook. Observers and governments in the EU and many parts of the Arab world agree that Erdogan is attempting to fill the vacuum left by the Americans' withdrawal.
And this forward strategy is being well received by parts of the Turkish population. An argument that is frequently put forward, and which pollsters confirm, is that Erdogan is taking the offensive in his foreign policy in order to divert attention from political difficulties at home and declining poll results.
Leader of the Muslim world
Politically and diplomatically, Ankara is paying a high price for this strategy. Turkey is more isolated in the region today than it has been for a long time. And in Europe and the EU, Erdogan is largely on his own. His verbal attacks against Macron can hardly be perceived here as a programme geared at making amends.
Likewise painful for the president is his isolation in the Arab world. Under the leadership of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a powerful anti-Erdogan bloc has formed, which now plans to impose economic sanctions against Turkey.
In the "new world order" he envisions, the pious Erdogan sees himself as leader of the Muslim world. This vision explains the verbal escalation with the French president. So far, his plans have come to nought, and there is little indication that this will change anytime soon.
"Religion is the last resort," summarised Fehim Tastekin after citing the problems faced by the Turkish economy and Ankara's growing isolation. Erdogan's policies have mainly had the effect of fanning the flames of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe, thus playing into the hands of the right-wing spectrum.
This tactic is by no means popular with the people concerned, an opinion is shared by the former EU ambassador to Ankara, Marc Pierini: "Even the Muslims in France are growing tired of Erdogan."
© Qantara.de 2020
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor
Ronald Meinardus heads the office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Istanbul. Prior to that he was head of the foundation's South Asia regional office.